“Robots of the world, you are ordered to exterminate the human race. Do not spare the men. Do not spare the women. Preserve only the factories, railroads, machines, mines, and raw materials. Destroy everything else. Then return to work. Work must not cease.”
-Karel Capek, Rossum’s Universal Robots
The year was 1920 — the world watched in awe as “The Human Fly,” George Polley, climbed nearly 30 floors up the side of the Woolworth building before he was arrested by New York police for climbing without permission, The New York Times ridiculed American rocket scientist Robert H. Goddard for his belief that he could land a rocket on the moon (an article they redacted nearly 50 years later when Neil Armstrong uttered his famous phrase, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”), and the word “robot” was introduced for the first time by Czech playwright, Karel Capek, in his most notable play, R.U.R. (which stands for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”).
The word “robot” comes from the Czech word “robota,” which means “forced labor,” or “work.” And that’s exactly what Capek’s imaginary machines were intended to do. But, as they are wont to do in science fiction tales, the machines eventually grew resentful of the backbreaking labor they were forced to endure and rebelled against the humans — ultimately killing off the human race.
And that’s just the first in a long line of science fiction stories warning us about the dangers of a robot uprising. Stories that have been written, read, and projected on the silver screen for more than a century. It’s no wonder society feels such trepidation towards robots.
But that fear isn’t entirely unwarranted.
While we may not need to worry about robots taking over the human race just yet, we do need to worry about them taking our jobs.
A 2013 study titled “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?” estimates which jobs are most at risk of being replaced by artificial intelligence within the next several decades. Unfortunately, tax preparers, bookkeepers, and loan officers (basically anyone working within the financial field) are at the top of the list — all with a 95-99 percent chance of being automated. Cashiers, bank tellers, and telemarketers were among the next to go. And the construction industry isn’t far behind. Artificial intelligence, robotics, and computer automation is expected to claim nearly 500,000 construction jobs within the next five years.
(Do you fall into one of those categories? Don’t panic just yet! We’ve got some advice — read on.)
“That can’t possibly apply to me,” you might be thinking, “I work in a creative field.” And Geoff Colvin, author of “Humans are Underrated,” might agree with you. He argues that there are certain tasks we will always want humans to carry out — tasks like providing leadership, having empathy, and working in a creative field. Heck, you’ve even got Will Smith on your side.
Unfortunately, it’s not exactly true. Thanks to artificial creativity, robots can create music, art, and even poetry. Articles written by pre-programmed softwares are being published on websites likes Forbes and Wikipedia every day, and author Phil Parker admits that software, armed with a complex algorithm, is responsible for writing most of his books.
“Surely the medical world is safe,” you might say, “a computer can’t possibly evaluate a patient.” Wrong again. Computers are already at work in the medical field; they can diagnose diseases, prescribe treatments, and even perform surgeries. Their ability to store infinite amounts of medical information allows them, in some cases, to more accurately and efficiently diagnose and treat patients than their human counterparts. Human doctors, after all, are only human. They are vulnerable to human error and oversight.
So, still think your job is safe? Think again.
Before the end of this century, 70 percent of today’s jobs will be replaced by automation.
However, contrary to popular belief, this isn’t a new development. Less than 200 years ago, more than 70 percent of American workers lived and worked on a farm. Today, all but 1 percent of those jobs have been replaced by machines. In short, the robot takeover has already begun. In fact, it began long before the invention of the word “robot.”
But it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Think of it this way: 200 years ago, the average worker had very few options when it came to employment. Non-farmers were blacksmiths, bakers, or servants … with little else in-between. By the time the 21st century rolled around, we had created millions of new jobs in millions of fields (and we’re not talking farms). The farmers of the 19th century never could have dreamed of the jobs we have today — just like the people of today can’t possibly foresee the jobs we’ll have in the future; the jobs we’ll create after automation has taken the dull or arduous jobs off our hands.
How do we combat a robot takeover? It’s simple: We don’t.
“We need to let robots take over. They will do jobs we have been doing, and do them much better than we can. They will do jobs we can’t do at all. They will do jobs we never imagined even needed to be done. And they will help us discover new jobs for ourselves, new tasks that expand who we are …”
-Kevin Kelly, Wired
Especially in the case of the construction industry, automation can (and probably will) save billions of dollars each year — not to mention millions of jobs and hundreds of lives.
How? The construction industry currently loses more than $120 billion annually due to labor inefficiencies, miscommunication, and wasted materials — problems that could be solved through the use of automation. However, the adoption rate of new technologies within the construction industry is surprisingly low.
Why? It’s simple: Construction professionals are worried the robots will steal their jobs. They’re worried that automation, rather than creating new opportunities, will replace them.
However, Justin Werfel, a Harvard research scientist believes that “robots are specifically created for the three D’s of construction work: Dangerous, Dirty, and Dull.” Automating those D-jobs could help lower the number of construction related fatalities each year. And, as the “Future of Employment” study notes, “Technological disruptions such as robotics and machine learning — rather than completely replacing existing occupations and job categories — are likely to substitute specific tasks previously carried out as part of these jobs, freeing workers up to focus on new tasks and leading to rapidly changing core skill sets in these occupations.”
In other words, allowing the “robots” to take on the dangerous and dirty tasks will free up construction professionals to take on new projects and expand their skill set.
Here’s the deal: Automation is inevitable. The robots are taking over. Unfortunately (or fortunately), this is where science fiction gets it wrong: In our favorite stories, the humans always win. But in real life, we don’t stand a chance in the war against robotics. In real life, we’re better off learning to work alongside them. You know what they say …
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
In 1997, Russian chess Grandmaster, Garry Kasparov, was beaten at his own game by a computer program for the first time ever. It was a historic milestone for technology, but a historic loss for Kasparov. After his defeat, he dedicated himself to helping humans “win the race against the machine.” He believes that education is our greatest weapon in the war against robots, and, as he puts it, “We might not be able to change our hardware, but we can upgrade our software.”
In this case, upgrading our software means embedding computer science “at the heart of our national skill agenda.” It means teaching the future generation “to develop and manipulate software and robotics themselves, rather than compete against them.” And it means “dragging our education system into the 21st century — particularly our outmoded approach to adult training and apprenticeships, which is still based on the need of the past hundred years,” said a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“When it comes to the real-life race against the machine, we have no time to lose. Either we can rise to the challenge of automation, and radically overhaul our education, training and skills system, or wage a losing battle trying to compete.”
-Rohan Silva, Telegraph
That being said, when it comes to holding our own in the war against machines, humanity is our greatest weapon.
When you walk into a barber shop in the future, you might just find yourself at the hands of a robot stylist (Edward Scissorhands, anyone?). But, as any good hairdresser can tell you, the most important part of her job is the coffee and the chat with the clients. And, as any good accountant can tell you, the most important part of their job is the client relationships — the trust, loyalty, and, in many cases, friendship that stems from years of advice and financial planning. The same goes for cashiers, bank tellers, and yes, even construction workers. In a world ruled by technology, the most important part any profession is the human relationships we create.
As for the future, in a world ruled by robots, people will (and already do) crave human interaction more than ever. With that in mind, the solution is simple: be human.
“The care that humans give uniquely to each other is not fundamentally physical,” said Frances Coppola, associate editor of Pieria, during her “Humanising the Robot Society” seminar as part of London Technology Week. In other words, a robot can never provide the same level of care as a human can — and if you want your profession to survive the robot takeover, you’re going to have to add “caring” to your job description. You’re going to have to focus on the human relationships you have with your clients — the relationships that could never be replicated by a machine. In short, you’re going to have to be human.
“We need to let robots take over,” said Kevin Kelly. “They will let us focus on becoming more human than we were.”